Micronesia: the ultimate communications challenge

200,000 people spread over thousands of tiny islands in an area of 3 million square kilometres – a challenge to communications? You bet.

Chuuk, Micronesia

Chuuk in Micronesia (Flickr/mattk1979)

20% of the health budget in Micronesia is spent on sending people off their home island to a larger centre for treatment, so telehealth is important.

Micronesia is a satellite coverage blackspot, says Bruce Best from the Telecommunication and Distance Education Operation at the University of Guam, which is ironic when people on such remote islands are among those who could most benefit from using satellites for communication.

In his presentation yesterday he said that any technology installed needs to be corrosion proof, able to withstand typhoons and sea level rise, cheap, culturally acceptable and effective.

Larger islands such as Guam and Fiji use fibre optic cables but it’s expensive to maintain and hooking up each inhabited atoll is impossible. And even though satellite is available in some places, at $250-300 a month it’s too expensive to run for most of the smaller islands.

That’s where high frequency (HF radio) comes in. Best and his team install HF radios that can be hooked up to a modem and computer to send emails, including attachments such as photos of a health complaint.

A major issue is finding transportation to get to the most isolated atolls. Because of their exorbitant prices, journeys on a cargo boat are few and far between, so Best tries to hitch a ride any time he can on boats chartered by other aid organisations. And when he does go, he takes education and medical specialists with him to make the most of the trip.

And he can’t forget anything either – at the furthest points, you can be a month away from an aeroplane. He must keep very good checklists.

Katherine Nightingale, South-East Asia news editor, SciDev.Net

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